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Music Review: James Armstrong – Blues at the Border

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“Old school” may be the most overused term of 2011. Then again, this year has been very good for roots musicians whose feet are firmly planted on the shoulders of old school masters. For example, James Armstrong is among those who are fully immersed in what Memphis soul and blues has been offering for decades. On one hand, he can replicate the Southern blues stylings of the likes of B. B. King, Robert Cray, and Bobby Blue Bland. On the other, he can draw from the well of musical settings captured in the soul vaults of Stax and Atlantic Records, at least in terms of the spirit of the 60s. But he’s also a contemporary performer of these genres, especially in the lyrics which speak to a post-9/11 world.

While many a bluesman can demonstrate their chops on the guitar, few players, singers, and songwriters can claim the vocal delivery of Armstrong. Yes, he can show that he learned his lead lines from legends King, Cray, and Albert Collins. But his rich baritone is a natural born gift he’s honed with experience both on and off the stage. Dubbed the “Ambassador of the Blues,” his credentials were earned the old school way. For example, he had to retrain his left hand to play slide after his arm was injured in a home invasion. It took 11 years for him to work up his latest record, co-produced by Armstrong, Michael Ross, and Bob Trenchard in studios in New York City and Tornillo, Texas. One track, “Devil’s Candy,” was recorded live, one of many samples of Armstrong’s 21st Century down to basics soul-blues.

The opening number, “Everything Good To Ya (Ain’t Always Good For Ya)” is the first clue Armstrong is out to share life lessons with his audience. Song titles are good signals as to what he’s preaching as in “Somebody Got To Pay” and “Good Man, Bad Thing.” “Brand New Man,” an in-the-pocket cool groove, is all about what it takes to make big changes. “Long Black Car” reminds us of what we can’t take with us in the afterlife.

Autobiographical moments include “Young Man with the Blues,” a tribute to his father who had to raise his son without a mother around. Few lyrics can be as convincing as those for “Blues At The Border” telling the much-too-familiar story of airport hassles for any traveler in general, touring musicians in particular. “Too many rules” is the refrain, and clearly Armstrong sings from frustrating experience. “High Maintenance Woman” is an upbeat reworking of “Born Under a Bad Sign” with lyrics all about a lady who wants it all and then some, but Armstrong won’t hear a word against her (I didn’t know so many polishes existed—teeth, shoes, fingernails).

Armstrong isn’t a growling gut-bucket blues singer nor so smooth you wonder where the string section is. He’s right down the middle, which makes this collection appealing for folks who like their blues to go down easy with an emphasis on melody. Armstrong’s voice should remind you of why we loved the likes of Otis Redding, Al Green, Percy Sledge, and why new singers can still deliver the recipes of the old school soul kitchen.

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About Wesley Britton